The quest for wisdom in a modern world

When I was researching for last week's blog post I came across an article saying that wisdom influences life satisfaction much more than other factors. I was intrigued.

I was also intrigued when I read what the study's author, Monika Ardelt, had to say about wisdom:

Until recently, the ancient concept of wisdom was widely ignored in the social and psychological literature. During the last number of years, however, wisdom has gained in popularity, particularly in the areas of human development, successful aging, and personal growth. Yet, even after well over a decade of contemporary wisdom research, a uniform definition of this concept does not exist.Ardelt, M. (1997). Wisdom and Life Satisfaction in Old Age. In The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (Vol. 52B, Issue 1, pp. P15–P27). Oxford University Press (OUP). 

The study, performed in 1997, consisted of 39 men and 81 women in Berkeley, California, who were first surveyed in 1928/29 and then again 40 years later. Using a standardized personality assessment system, taped interviews of the participants were meticulously coded.

These are the correlations between the factors considered and life satisfaction, according to the study:

For the men:
Wisdom (.64)
Physical health (.56)
Social involvement (.33)
Financial situation (.20)

For the women:
Wisdom (.77)
Financial situation (.46)
Socioeconomic status (.33)
Physical health (.32)
Social involvement (.28)
Physical environment (.25)

All other factors were below .20Marital status wasn't considered as a factor. Age had a slightly negative correlation. Figures differ from other studies to some degree (but are reasonably similar) likely due to the small sample size and rough granularity of factors (generally on a 0 to 3 scale). I'm most interested in the definition of wisdom used in the study, though, so I'm not overly concerned with its accuracy.

Considering that wisdom isn't usually considered when assessing life satisfaction, these results are thought-provoking. Given Ardelt's comments on wisdom, I was motivated to find out how the researchers defined wisdom.

I will touch briefly on the source of Ardelt's definition of wisdom. The formula she chose came from a book about psychology and human development that was published in 1980.Clayton, V. P., & Birren, J. E. (1980). The development of wisdom across the life-span: A reexamination of an ancient topic. In P. B. Baltes and O. G. Brim, Jr. (Eds.), Life-span development and behavior (Vol. 3, pp. 103-135). New York: Academic Press. Clayton and Birren, the authors of the chapter, in turn, referenced the work of Norma Haan who authored authoritative publications about ego functioning.Haan, N. (1969). A Tripartite Model Of Ego Functioning Values And Clinical And Research Applications. In The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (Vol. 148, Issue 1, pp. 14–30). Ovid Technologies (Wolters Kluwer Health).

The Clayton and Birren model of wisdom that Ardelt used is comprised of three components: a person's cognitive, reflective, and affective qualities. Here are some of the factors that determine these three components:

  1. Cognitive component: The person thinks clearly and objectively, focuses on the problem instead of avoiding it, and uses logical analysis. Basically, the person is a critical thinker.
  2. Reflective component: The person is able to make decisions even when the situation isn't entirely clear. They understand their own motives and behavior rather than projecting their own feelings and motivations onto others. The person can handle criticism and avoids blaming others for undesirable situations. They don't play the victim.
  3. Affective component: The person demonstrates empathy. They are considerate and generous, warm and compassionate. They avoid questioning others' motives. They try to be straightforward in their dealings with others rather than undermining, obstructing, or sabotaging. They avoid exploiting others.

There is an interesting connection between wisdom and critical thinking here. It is worth exploring further.

The reflective component reminds me of the concept of the accountability ladder. This infographic illustrates it particularly well: 

Each step up the rungs becomes more accountable and less powerless

As I think about it a bit more, the Reflective component focuses on (internal) self-awareness while the Accountability ladder focuses on doing the work. Still, I believe both are based on wisdom.

When I first glanced at the Affective component, I thought it might have something to do with emotional intelligence, but after looking closer, I would say it's something to do with prosocial behaviors, as Ardelt says:

Reflective thinking and a diminished ego-centeredness lead to a deeper comprehension of the contradictions, imperfections, and negative aspects of human nature, a process that is likely to make a person more caring, empathic, and compassionate toward others. As a consequence, a wise man or woman seeks to help other people and not to harm anyone.

Ardelt relates wisdom to the "transcendence of one's subjectivity," which, in turn, is connected to seeing reality more clearly. In this case, I'm reminded of what I wrote about ego strength, which is based heavily on a strong grasp of reality.

We all know that wisdom contributes to a bright outlook. As we explore this topic further, we'll gain a better understanding of what wisdom is.